My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Larry Franklin

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery – ‘Letters Fom Home’

Letters From Home was John Michael Montgomery’s [“JMM”] ninth studio album, and his third released on the Warner Brothers label. Released in April 2004, JMM’s career its downhill slide. Although the album charted reasonably well (#3 country /#31 all-genres), sales were tepid and the album received no RIAA certifications. There would be one more studio album (released in 2008) that charted poorly.

In the wake of 9/11 there were many patriotic songs released, a few quite good and many being little more than jingoistic flag wavers. This album features one of the better such songs in the title track, Tony Lane and David Lee’s “Letters From Home”. This song transcends the politics of the moment with a timeless, understated, but emotionally moving portrayal of a soldier at war, whose soul scorching daily grind is eased by news from family and friends back home. The song does not mention any politicians or villains by name, so in a sense it is a universal song that could apply to any soldier at any time in our nation’s history. The song soared to #2 country and would rise to #24 on the pop charts (the best showing ever for a JMM single) and its rise on the charts is commensurate with its quality.

My dearest son, it’s almost June
I hope this letter catches up with you
And finds you well
It’s been dry
But they’re callin’ for rain
And everything’s the same old same
In Johnsonville
Your stubborn old daddy
Ain’t said too much
But I’m sure you know
He sends his love

And she goes on
In a letter from home

I hold it up and show my buddies
Like we ain’t scared
And our boots ain’t muddy
And they all laugh
Like there’s something funny
‘Bout the way I talk
When I say, “Mamma sends her best, y’all”
I fold it up and put it in my shirt
Pick up my gun and get back to work

And it keeps me drivin’ on
Waitin’ on letters from home

Only one more single would be released from the album, “Goes Good with Beer” which peaked at #51. The song undoubtedly would have been a bigger hit had it been released during JMM’s heyday. As it was, it barely received any airplay in my part of the country.

Flat tire on the interstate
Too many nights of workin’ too late
Had a run in with an old memory
No, it ain’t been the best of weeks

But it goes good with beer and the Friday night atmosphere
Of this cross-town bar where the cars all get steered to
And it goes hand in hand with my
Crazy buddies and this three-piece band
And the pretty girls and the games we play and the smoke and mirrors
Yeah, troubles come, but they go good with beer, yeah, they do, yeah

I think that the mid-tempo ballad “That Changes Everything” would have made a good single, but I also think that the label regarded the title track as a fluke hit (or last hurrah), and had lost interest in JMM by this time. Moreover, JMM’s sound and production were getting more country at a time when country radio was viewing acts like Rascal Flatts and Jason Aldean as representing the epitome of country music. Billy Currington also recorded the song as an album track but I like JMM’s version better.

I said, “I know a shrimp boat captain out of Galveston”
I’ve been thinkin’ I’d go down and work for a spell
Oh, you never can tell it just might suit me fine
Spend some time out on the bay
But then there’s always cowboy work in Colorado
And I was thinkin’ that that just might be the thing
Make a little pocket change I figure what the heck
Ain’t nothin’ standin’ in my way
But then she smiled at me

Looked a while at me
And that changes everything
That’s a whole “nother deal
That puts a brand new spin
On this ole rollin’ wheel
That’s some powerful stuff
That’s a girl in love
And that’s one thing
That changes everything

This is a pretty decent album, which I would give a B+. The production by Byron Gallimore and JMM features Tom Bukovac on electric guitar, Mark Casstevens on banjo, Stuart Duncan & Larry Frankin on fiddle, mandolin, Paul Franklin on steel guitar, dobro, and Glen Worf on bass among the many fine musicians utilized on the album.

Track Listing

“Good Ground” (Bill Luther, Bob Regan, Naoise Sheridan) – 4:09
“Letters from Home” (Tony Lane, David Lee) – 4:27
“That’s What I’m Talking About” (Paul Nelson, Tom Shapiro) – 3:24
“Look at Me Now” (Mike Geiger, Vicky McGehee, D. Vincent Williams) – 3:22
“Goes Good with Beer” (Casey Beathard, Ed Hill) – 4:26
“Cool” (Harley Allen, Brice Long) – 3:38
“It Rocked” (Marty Dodson, Paul Overstreet) – 3:50
“That Changes Everything” (Lane, Lee) – 3:57
“Break This Chain” (Jim Collins, Billy Yates) – 2:52
“Little Devil” (Blair Daly, Danny Orton) – 3:47

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Album Review: Daryle Singletary – ‘Ain’t It The Truth’

 

Released in February 1998, Ain’t It The Truth was Daryle’s third, and most successful album release, reaching #18 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, his only album to crack the top forty. This seems strange in that Daryle’s days of producing hit singles were over. There were three singles released from this album, only one of which cracked the top thirty country singles.

Despite the lack of singles success, this is a really fine country album with a cast of stalwart country musicians plying their trade on the album, headed by the following:

Larry Byrom – acoustic guitar, electric guitar

Joe Chemay – bass guitar

Larry Franklin – fiddle

Paul Franklin – dobro, steel guitar

Sonny Garrish – steel guitar

Steve Gibson – acoustic guitar, electric guitar, mandolin

John Hobbs – keyboards, synthesizer

Dann Huff – bass guitar, electric guitar

The album opens up with “The Note” a fine song that had been recorded by the likes of Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette and Doug Supernaw before Daryle got around to releasing the song as a singleDaryle’s version reached #28 on the Country chart but also reached #90 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

The note was short, but lord so strong
It simply said I can’t go on
And live a lie with someone I don’t love
She couldn’t tell me face to face

Oh, but how my world was changed
By the hand that held the pen
That wrote the words that broke the heart
Of the one the only one that really loves her

My tears fell down like falling rain
But they can’t wash away the pain
How will I go to sleep without her in my arms
She never meant to break my heart

Oh,but how my world was torn apart
By the, hand that held the (f) pen
That wrote the words that broke the heart
Of the one the only one that really loves her

This is followed up by “Love or the Lack Of” by Mary Ann Kennedy and Rich Wayland, a mid-tempo ballad of what life really is about.

Jeff Crossan’s “That’s Where You’re Wrong” is a nice ballad, sung well by Daryle, and serves this album well by keeping the tempos on the album mixed. I don’t think the song had real potential as a single but it was released as the second single on the album, just cracking the top fifty.

 You said, what you had to say, would come as a surprise

You were right, honey, you were right

You told me, nothing I could do was gonna change your mind

I knew then, you’d be right again

But, when you said we were through, I knew that wasn’t true

 

[Chorus]

That’s where you’re wrong, that’s where you’re wrong

Deep down inside love lingers on, it won’t let go, it’s still too strong

That’s where you’re wrong

Daryle was never timid about tackling classic country ballads, and in Jerry Reed’s “A Thing Called Love” he has picked a good one. The song was originally released as a single by Jimmy Dean back in 1968 (still my favorite version of the song), taken to #1 (Record World) in 1972 by Johnny Cash, and covered by countless artists as an album track. Daryle gives this mid-tempo ballad a straight-ahead country treatment that does credit to the song.

Dwayne Blackwell’s rather tongue-in-cheek “I’d Live For You” would have made an excellent single:

 I won’t climb the highest mountain I won’t swim the deep blue sea

I won’t brave a raging river I’m no hero on TV

Well there are other ways to prove my love if you’re not too choosy

I’d swim the deep blue swimming pool climb the highest barroom stool

Brave the raging waters of a hot tub or Jacuzzi

 

Honey I’d live for you that’d be a lot more fun

Work and give to you vacations in the sun

No I wouldn’t die for love like the poets say they’d do

I love you so much honey I’d live for you

“A Miracle In The Making” finds Daryle as a duet partner with Kerry Singletary (now Kerry Harvick), his then- wife. Kerry’s not a bad singer, her voice somewhat reminiscent of Dolly Parton and I think this recording would have made a decent single

So I’m told it happens every day

Common as a wedding in the month of May

It’s something my heart won’t soon forget

There was nothing ordinary in that moment we met

 

We may not have seen the sea parted

We may not have tasted water turned to wine

And it may not appear all that earth shaking

Oh but I believe we could be a miracle in the making

Delbert McClinton’s “My Baby’s Lovin’ “ was the third and final single released from the album, reaching #44. Mc Clinton is a fine song-writer wih a bit of a bluesy touch to his ballads. This song is taken at a medium fast tempo and I’m surprised that it did not chart better.

The album closes with two songs on which Daryle has co-writing credit. “The Real Deal” is a good up-tempo song about the state of the narrator’s love (‘it’s the real deal’), whereas the title track is a ballad that pays homage to past country classics. I love the song, it definitely tells it like it is for Singletary and it would have made a great single. The track received some airplay here in Central Florida.

Born in this country red white and blue

From church pews to bar stools it’s always been true

From up in the mountains way back in the pines

From Crazy to Sweet Dreams to Yesterday’s Wine

 

All of my heroes from Lefty to Jones

Some are still with us and some have gone home

Oh precious are the memories of the music they made

Forever living not held by the grave

 

Forever and Always Chiseled in Stone

Like honky tonk prophets their words linger on

If you don’t believe me if you need some proof

Ask any old jukebox hey ain’t it the truth

 

Honest and simple never ashamed

Lord help us Jesus never to change

One day I’ll see Lefty when my work is through

He’ll say son you were country oh ain’t it the truth

 

Forever and Always Chiseled in Stone…

Ask any old jukebox hey ain’t it the truth      

 

I really like this album, and I play it with some regularity – I actually had been listening to the album the week before Daryl’s death. I’d call it a solid “A”

Album Review: Asleep at the Wheel – ‘Keepin’ Me Up Nights’

0001597610Released in 1990 as their only studio album for Arista Records, Keepin’ Me Up Nights will do just that as it is a interesting effort throughout.

Asleep At The Wheel (“AATW”) can often feature an astounding number of musicians on stage but this album finds the band being comprised of Ray Benson on lead vocals and guitar; Larry Franklin on fiddle, guitar, and harmony vocals; Tim Alexander on piano, accordion and harmony vocals; John Ely on pedal and lap steel; Michael Francis on saxophone, Joe Mitchell on acoustic and electric bass; and David Sanger on drums. The band is augmented by Greg Jennings playing guitars and six string bass.

The album opens with “Keepin’ Me Up Nights”, a bluesy/jazzy number written by James Dean Hicks and Byron Hill.  In the albums notes Benson says the intent was to do a ‘Ray Charles sings western swing’ arrangement. I would say there were successful.

“Boot Scootin’ Boogie” was written by Ronnie Dunn and would prove to be a major hit for Brooks & Dunn two years later. Since I heard AATW’s version jazzy version first, I found myself surprised at the Brooks & Dunn arrangement and frankly I think AATW did it better, albeit quite differently and definitely not suitable for line dancing.

“Dance With Who Brung You” is a Ray Benson original inspired by a phrase used by former Texas football coach Darrell Royal. This song is done as a mid-tempo ballad.

You got to dance with who brung you, swing with who swung you,
Don’t be a fickle fool,You came here with a gal, who’s always been your pal
Don’t leave her for the first unattached girl, it just ain’t cool
You got to dance with who brung you, swing with who swung you,
Life ain’t no forty-yard dash, be in it for the long run,
’cause in the long run you’ll have more fun, if you dance with who brung You to the bash

Ray collaborated with co-producer Tim Dubois on “Quittin’ Time”, a boogie with real nice sax solos by Michael Francis.

Lisa Silver (who played fiddle on AATW’s second album), Judy Rodman and Carol Chase join the band to provide background vocals on Bobby Braddock’s lovely “Eyes”, an exquisite slow ballad.

Troy Seals and John Schneider wrote “Goin’ Home” is a ballad about the joys of going home after being away too long. This song has a rhythmic arrangement suitable for line dancing.

Well I’ve got a lot of friends on the West Coast,
Got a lot of memories
Well I want you to know that I won’t forget
Everything you’ve done for me
But it’s been too long, just too long
T-T-T-T-T-Too long, I’m a-goin’ home
New York, Detroit, Chicago
You were really somethin’ else
You treated me just like kinfolk y’all,
And I swear I can’t help myself
But it’s been too long, way too long
T-T-T-T-T-Too long, I’m a-goin’ home

I’m gonna write a letter,
I’m gonna send a telegram
Gonna tell everybody this wanderin’ boy is packing his bags right now
And I’m’a goin’ home

“That’s The Way Love Is” was written by former (and founding) AATW member Leroy Preston in 1989. The song, a mid-tempo ballad with a strong Cajun feel to the arrangement (fiddle and accordion), tells of the ups and downs of life. John Wesley Ryles, briefly a star in his own right, chips in background vocals

“Gone But Not Forgotten” was penned by Fred Knobloch and Scott Miller is an up-tempo western swing song about where money goes. We’ve all lived this story …

The great Harlan Howard wrote “You Don’t Have To Go To Memphis”. The premise of the song is that you don’t have to go to Memphis to get the blues, just fall for the wrong woman. The song features nice piano and fiddle solos

You don’t have to go to Memphis to get the Blues
You just fall in love with the kind of women I do
Well, I’ve had me a dozen but I never had me one that
Did not fall through
You don’t have to go to Memphis to get the Blues
There she goes, here I stand
Watching good love slip away
Once again, I’m all alone
Love has come and gone

“Beat Me Daddy (Eight To The Bar)” is a classic boogie from 1940, originally recorded by Will Bradley’s Orchestra (with Ray McKinley on lead vocals). The song was a huge hit for Bradley and has been recorded many times since Bradley’s recording including Commander Cody, Ella Fitzgerald and The Andrews Sisters. The song was completely written by Don Raye although some other names also show up on the writer’s credits

In a little honky-tonky village in Texas
There’s a guy who plays the best piano by far
He can play piano any way that you like it
But the way he likes to play is eight to the bar
When he plays, it’s a ball
He’s the daddy of them all
The people gather around when he gets on the stand
Then when he plays, he gets a hand
The rhythm he beats puts the cats in a trance
Nobody there bothers to dance
But when he plays with the bass and guitar
They holler out, “Beat me Daddy, eight to the bar”

“Texas Fiddle Man” was written by fiddler Larry Franklin and he takes the lead vocals on this song, which features some extended fiddle solos. The folks at Alabama (the band) contributed the idea for the closing riffs.

The album concludes with “Pedernales Stroll” a gentle instrumental tribute to finger pickers such as Chet Atkins, Merle Travis. The song is the only instrumental on the album and as such, the perfect ending to an exciting album

Grade: A+

Album Review: Clay Walker – ‘Fall’

fallI have always liked Clay Walker as a performer and admired his courage in pursuing his career in the face of adversity, in the form of multiple sclerosis which was diagnosed in 1996 when Clay was twenty-seven years old.

A similar fate befell country superstar Donna Fargo in 1978, definitely affecting her career; however, by 1996 significant progress had been made in the treatment of the illness, so that Clay was not forced to restrict his live appearances to the same extent that Fargo had been forced to do. Accordingly his career surged on, seemingly without missing a beat (although there were lifestyle and dietary changes that Walker made in combating his illness).

Fall was released in April 2007, on Asylum/Curb records, nearly four years after his previous album, A Few Questions, was released on RCA. Clay had signed with Asylum/Curb in July 2005 but, following its usual pattern, it took until February 2007, before the label got round to issuing any new music on Clay.

That brings us to the current album with the first single release being the humorous “‘Fore She Was Mama”. The song tells the story of a ten year old boy who discovers a “box of forget-me-nots” (or old memorabilia) in his parents’ closet.

There was one of her, flippin’ the bird
Sittin’ on a Harley
And a few with some hairy hippie dude
Turns out his name was Charlie
Her hair, her clothes, her drinkin’, smokin’
Had us boys confused
I’ll never forget the day us nosy kids got introduced…

To mama ‘fore she was mama
In a string bikini, in Tijuana
Won’t admit she smoked marijuana
But I saw mama ‘fore she was mama

I was stunned to find that this song only made #21 on Billboard’s country charts, since the song received very heavy airplay throughout most of the southeastern USA. In fact I know of four radio stations where the song soared to #1 on the local survey. The song was Clay’s first chart record since 2004.

Track two is the title track, which was the second single released. “Fall” would return Clay to the top ten reaching #5. The song is a nice mid-tempo ballad which the narrator offers moral support to a partner who has had a bad day. The song might have had crossover potential, but Curb released a pop version of the song by Kimberly Locke, another artist signed to Curb, thus killing Clay’s shot at a crossover hit.

Hold up, there you go again
Puttin’ on that smile again
Even though I know you’ve had a bad day
Doin’ this and doin’ that
Always puttin’ yourself last
A whole lotta give and not enough take

But you can only be strong so long before you break

So fall, go on and fall apart
Fall into these arms of mine
I’ll catch you every time you fall
Go on and lose it all
Every doubt, every fear, every worry, every tear
I’m right here
Baby, fall

Released ten years earlier, the third track “Workin’ Man” would have made a good single. Unfortunately by 2007, country radio was looking for music more in line with the schlock being produced by Rascal Flatts or Jason Aldean.

He slips on his warn out jeans
She buttons up his shirt
A sleepy smile and a goodbye kiss
And he’s up and off to work

He puts in a forty hour week
But she’s on his mind full-time
And he’ll give it everything he’s got
And he’s all her’s at five

‘Cause he’s a workin’ man
He don’t mind workin’ overtime
For the trust and the touch of a woman
Come rain or shine

“Miami and Me“ is a mid-tempo song about a love that couldn’t be

Meet her in Miami
Conversation turned to wine
We talked and we talked
Yeah we hit it off, just fine
Stayed down by the water
Slept beneath the stars
We laughed and we danced
Made love in the sand
I held her in my arms

But I couldn’t make her stay
California called her away
And tonight the moon turned as blue as the sea
And she left Miami and me

Track five, “She Likes It In The Morning” is a lovely slow ballad that proved to be the third and final single released from the album. For reasons I will never understand, the song died at #43.

And she likes it in the morning
And I run my fingers through her hair
And she smiles when I call her darling
She looks like a angel laying there

And she wants me in the evening
To listen close to how she feels
She needs to know I need her
And Heaven knows I always will

‘Cause she loves me every single day and night
And she says we are everything that’s good in her life
She says she loves me more than anything on earth
And that’s almost as much as I love her

Track six “Mexico” is an up-tempo island-vibe track that makes for a good album track. Ditto for track seven “You’re My Witness”, a gentle ballad.

Track eight “Average Joe” is a mid-tempo ballad about the average Joes in any town. The lyrics are a bit of a laundry list, but the song has a nice melody and the song hangs together well

I don’t mind working
I don’t mind drinking
When I need to unwind
And I like listening to a
Country song on a Friday night

I’m a welder in the shop downtown
The drywaller in your brand new house
Yeah I’m your Average Joe
I’m the guy that fixed your van
I’m the painter
I’m your concrete man
Yeah I’m your Average Joe

Track nine, “It Ain’t Pretty (But It’s Beautiful)”, is a tender ballad about, well, various things including appreciating the good things in our lives

Got home and told my wife bout what I’d seen
She grabbed her purse, took me by the hand and said come with me
We drove around until we found the three of them
I wondered who was blessing who when they got in
We bought them food and clothes and drove to a toy store
And the little girl said I don’t need a brand new doll
As she hugged the broken armless one they found before
She said this one needs me more

She ain’t pretty, but she’s beautiful
She ain’t perfect, but she’s wonderful
She might be broken, but she’s lovable
She ain’t pretty, but she’s beautiful

Track ten, “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” features the late great Freddy Fender in a duet with Clay. The song was a country and pop #1 in 1974. This would prove to be Freddy’s last recording before his death on October 14, 2006. The duet comes off very well and it is nice to know that Freddy’s last recording was a really good one.

The album closes with a pair of nice ballads in “I’d Love To Be Your Last” and “I Hate Nights Like This”.

My friend Brady Vercher of the 9513 blog gave this album three stars and most reviewers at the time of the release had this at 3 to 3.5 stars. My review on Amazon (4/19/2007) was as follows:

“Clay’s first album of new material in several years delivers the solid country sound that one has come to expect from Clay. The first single “‘Fore She Was Mama” received considerable airplay, and seems to hold up well upon repeated listening. I am surprised that “Mama” topped out on Billboard at around 21, because its appeal in the Sunshine State was considerably stronger than that. If radio stations still maintained their own charts, I would expect that this would have been a top five song on stations throughout the Southeastern and Southwestern parts of the USA, perhaps tanking north of the Mason-Dixon line.

The album features a nice mix of slow and up-tempo songs. One of the slower songs “It Ain’t Pretty (But It’s Beautiful)” is a bit maudlin, but for me it’s the best song on the album. Another highlight is Clay’s recording of “Before The Last Teardrop Falls”, a duet with the late Freddy Fender. Freddy’s death isn’t acknowledged anywhere in the CD booklet, but I’m pretty sure it was his last recording.

The current single “Fall” is receiving substantial airplay. I would not have picked it as a single, but I can see where its lyrics would have a strong appeal to female listeners with its strongly supportive message to the wife (or girlfriend).

“Average Joe” is a song that should resonate with many, and it features legendary pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins. Paul Franklin plays steel on all tracks, but several fiddlers share the spotlight on the various tracks (Rob Hajacos, Stuart Duncan, Larry Franklin).

Welcome back Clay – four stars”

My opinion of the album has not changed since then, although I do not regard “It Ain’t Pretty (But It’s Beautiful)” as the best song on the album anymore.

Track Listing
1. “‘Fore She Was Mama”
Casey Beathard, Phil O’Donnell
3:43
2. “Fall”
Sonny LeMaire, Shane Minor, Clay Mills
3:37
3. “Workin’ Man” M. Jason Greene, Clay Walker 3:55
4. “Miami and Me” Greene, Walker 4:02
5. “She Likes It in the Morning”
Greene, Walker 3:50
6. “Mexico” Greene, Walker 2:41
7. “You’re My Witness” Greene, Walker 3:38
8. “Average Joe” Ed Hill, Don Poythress, David Frasier 3:09
9. “It Ain’t Pretty (But It’s Beautiful)” Doug Johnson, Nicole Witt, Kim Williams 4:00
10. “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” (duet with Freddy Fender)
Ben Peters, Vivian Keith
2:39
11. “I’d Love to Be Your Last” Rivers Rutherford, Annie Tate, Sam Tate 3:24
12. “I Hate Nights Like This” Walker 4:20

Album Review: The Time Jumpers – ‘The Time Jumpers’

Nashville’s very own 11-person supergroup, the Time Jumpers may have started as a side project allowing its members a regular live outlet, but they have now come into their own on record. Their mixture of country, jazz and western swing has been showcased before on two live albums, and the members’ brilliant musicianship and sheer love of music shines through at every turn on this, their first studio album, out now on Rounder Records.

Instrumental tracks often tend to be tacked on at the end of an album, seeming almost like an apologetic afterthought. It is rare for one to open proceedings, and the Time Jumpers’ decision to place ‘Texoma Bound’, composed by Larry Franklin, one of the group’s three fiddle players, allows them to show off their chops in dazzling style. Members include regular CMA instrumentalist of the year nominee Paul Franklin, perhaps Nashville’s most in-demand steel guitarist, as well as superstar Vince Gill.

Fiddler Kenny Sears sings lead on his own song ‘Nothing But The Blues’. It’s a pleasant western swing song with a relaxed feel and a great instrumental section, but Kenny is an average vocalist. The same goes for Ranger Doug, better known as lead singer of the retro-western group Riders in the Sky. His western ballad ‘Ridin’ On the Rio’ suffers from his limited vocals, but is quite a nice song, and an interesting reminder of a marginalized sub-genre.

Kenny’s wife Dawn on the other hand, has a fabulous voice and knows how to use it with subtlety. Her bid for a solo career never really got off the ground, but she is an aoutstanding vocalist, and shows that here. My favourite of her cuts here is on her own song ‘So Far Apart’, a regretful look at a once happy marriage which has grown cold. Dawn’s vocal interprets the emotion beautifully, supported by Paul Franklin’s equally perfect steel guitar , and this sounds like a lost classic from the 1960s. I also love her version of the Harlan Howard-penned Someone Had To Teach You, which George Strait recorded 20-odd years ago on Livin’ It Up. Dawn then comes across as sultry jazz chanteuse on ‘Faint Of Heart’, written by Vince Gill and Al Anderson.

Dawn and Kenny duet on the western swing ‘Texas On A Saturday Night’, written by minor 70s act Mundo Earwood. It is entertaining, but more about the overall groove and musicianship than the vocals. This is definitely music to dance to. Dawn sings with Ranger Doug on ‘Yodel Blues’, the title of which is explanatory.

Vince Gill, long a member of the group when other commitments permitted him, makes his first appearance with them in record now that he is free of his major label deal. ‘New Star Over Texas’, which he wrote with Leslie Satcher is a rather charming western swing ballad with prominent steel, while ‘On The Outskirts Of Town’ (which he wrote with Reed Nielsen) is lyrically slight but the swingy feel and sparkling playing carry it off.

‘Three Sides To Every Story’ is a classic styled country ballad about the end of a relationship following cheating and lies. This excellent song is quintessential Vince Gill and my favourite track. ‘The Woman Of My Dreams’ is another really fine traditional country song loaded with Paul Franklin’s steel, which has Vince lamenting the fact that the love of his love has moved on to somebody new. He really shines vocally on these songs, and they show his songwriting is on a roll as well. Hopefully another solo album is not too far away.

While this is clearly a democratic group with every member allowed to shine, Dawn Sears and Vince Gill are the clear vocal stars of the group, and the songs on which they take the lead are the highlights.

Grade: A

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘I Hope You Dance’

Lee Ann Womack’s most commercially successful album features crystalline vocals, an ambitious selection of material ranging from the traditional sounds closest to her heart to Americana to adult contemporary influences which barely escape being bland.

The title track was a massive crossover hit, thanks to the combination of the song’s message, very AC sounding, sophisticated production, and the lovely and obviously heartfelt vocal which Lee Ann directed to her two young daughters. The counterpoint of the Sons of the Desert (singing a different set of lyrics) is unusually set against the sweetness of Lee Ann’s optimistic vocal. The song’s ubiquity has led to some backlash, but I think it still stands up for what it is: a genuinely inspiring wish for a child to live life to the full and not regret any missed opportunities. And its message is worth hearing:

Loving might be a mistake but it’s worth making

Lee Ann’s only #1 hit, ‘I Hope You Dance’ registered platinum, won a stack of awards for both Lee Ann and its writers Mark D Sanders and Tia Sillers, crossed over to hit the top of the AC chart, and even got some pop and international airplay. It may not be her best record, but it is undoubtedly her best-known, particularly among non-country listeners.

The next single was a contrast in style and mood, a gutsy version of Rodney Crowell’s onetime minor pop hit ‘Ashes By Now’, which peaked for Lee Ann at #14. It’s one of her less country recordings, but undoubtedly technically an impressive achievement with Lee Ann successfully navigating the song’s awkward jerky rhythms, jaded mood and shifting intensity.

It was back to the ballads with ‘Why They Call It Falling’, another excellent song, written by Don Schlitz and Roxie Dean. It contrasts the thrill of falling in love with the devastation of subsequent heartbreak, and Lee Ann’s vocal is masterly, although the strings are a bit overwhelming in places. It peformed similarly to its immediate predecessor, and reached #13.

The last and best single, however, failed to make it into the top 20. The intense ‘Does My Ring Burn Your Finger?’ is a superb Buddy and Julie Miller song with a stinging lyric. Production on this track (one of three from the hands of Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell) is edgy but organic, with Lee Ann’s high lonesome wail just right for the starkness of the lyric addressed to the faithless spouse, with the Millers on harmony vocals.

Liddell’s other tracks are another Julie Miller song, the ponderous ‘I Know Why The River Runs’, which I could live without, and the infinitely better ‘Lonely Too’, written by Texas singer-songwriter Bruce Robison. This is my favorite on the record, a beautiful downbeat song, given a quietly impassioned delivery. The melody is quite lovely, with some strong fiddle from Aubrey Haynie and Larry Franklin and harmony vocals from Jon Randall making this a great sounding track. Lee Ann gently rebukes the careless lover who cannot understand why she is coping so badly:

You tell me you wondered if I was okay
Well, that’s a damn fool thing to say…

And you seem so surprised that I’m feeling this way
How am I so lonely today?
If you’d ever loved me the way I loved you
You would be lonely too

There are several other gems here.

The gorgeous ‘The Healing Kind’ opens the album with a subtle portrayal of disconsolate heartbreak which just won’t go away. This is a great song written by bluegrass singer/songwriter Ronnie Bowman and Greg Luck. Lee Ann’s exquisite vocal is backed by tasteful acoustic instrumentation and Ricky Skaggs’ harmonies, as she reveals a broken heart that hurts more every day, concluding bleakly as she meets yet another cold December alone,

Guess I’m just not the healing kind

Equally fine is the delicate Tammy Wynette styled ‘Stronger than I Am’ written by former singer Bobbie Cryner. A beautiful melody and tasteful strings sweeten a heartbreakingly incisive lyric about an abandoned wife who contrasts her failure to cope with live without her man, to her little girl’s innocence,

She finally learned to say goodbye
She’s sleeping through the night
She don’t wake up crying
And she’s walking on her own
She don’t need no one holding to her hand
And I hate to admit she’s stronger than I am

She’s just like her old man
Stronger than I am

Perhaps the most traditional country number included, the vivacious ‘I Feel Like I’m Forgetting Something’ is a co-write by Lee Ann with Wynn Varble and Jason Sellers. The copyright date is 1997, so one suspects it was left over from one of her previous albums. A chirpy mid-tempo number with a lot of personality about getting over an ex, it isn’t the best song here, but it was well worth reviving. Less successful is ‘After I Fall’, written by producer Mark Wright with Ronnie Rogers and Bill Kenner, which is the blander side of adult contemporary and falls completely flat.

‘Thinkin’ With My Heart Again’ is a pretty but melancholy sounding song written by Dean Dillon, Donny Kees and Sanger D Shafer with another delicate vocal conveying the complex emotions brought out when encountering a former love. An airy acoustic cover of ‘Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good’ (a chart topper for Don Williams back in 1982) ends the album on a high, with Ronnie Bowman and Dan Tyminski singing harmony.

Thanks to the juggernaut of the title song, this remains Lee Ann’s best selling album, earning triple platinum status. The singing is outstanding throughout, and although the material is mixed, there is a lot of good stuff here, making it worth finding a cheap copy.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Anniversary Celebration’

Marking the quarter of a century since the release of Randy’s landmark debut album, Storms Of Life, in June 1986, his latest release harks back to his last duets album, 1990’s Heroes And Friends, in many ways. The packaging, like its predecessor, includes pictures from the recording sessions, plus some older pictures from the early days of his career. Randy’s own vocals have noticeably deteriorated from his peak, but he sounds thoroughly invested in the songs here, and his voice still has immense character. The songs include a mixture of Travis classics and new or newish material. Kyle Lehning takes his accustomed place as producer (and, incidentally, pays tribute in the liner notes to Randy’s manager and ex-wife for her contribution to his career as a whole and this particular project).

It opens with a rather underwhelming collaboration with Brad Paisley on the rather boring and tuneless (and too loud) ‘Everything And All’, about seizing the moment, with Paisley also playing electric guitar. Troy Jones’s song has a 2006 copyright date, and frankly I can see why no one picked it up. The tune also sounds distinctly similar to ‘Everything’s A Thing’, an obscure Joe Nichols album cut. For some reason the album also closes with a solo version, which the song really doesn’t warrant. Fortunately matters improve from there on.

The best song from Heroes & Friends, ‘A Few Ole Country Boys’, gets a reprise, and is also one of my favorite tracks this time around. Randy takes the part George Jones sang on the original, and Jamey Johnson plays the young pretender inspired by him, very effectively. Jamey is no Travis, vocally, but he is an excellent emotional interpreter, and this version feels very genuine, if not quite in the class of the shiver-inducingly good original. There is a slight rewrite to suit the new casting (“We heard you were a fast train coming out of Caroline” becomes “Comin’ down I-65”). Larry Franklin’s lovely fiddle and Paul Franklin’s steel add to the traditional feel.

Even better is a gorgeous version of ‘Promises’ with Shelby Lynne, a great singer who has too rarely found equally great material, and has for the most part moved out of country music. Here she is emotional but restrained on one of Randy’s bleakest songs, while Randy’s voice, grainier than in his youth, sounds wearied by the string of broken promises which has led only to mutual heartbreak. The song works unexpectedly well as a duet, with the pair united in their self-imposed misery, and combined with a delicate string arrangement, this sets it apart from the stripped down original and creates it anew. I would love to hear Shelby on a full album’s worth of solo material like this.

The velvety bass-voiced Josh Turner gets the best of the new songs, the cheery Tim Menzies/Roger Springer song ‘T.I.M.E.’. This is a buddyish uptempo reminder to keep a marriage healthy by remembering that “women spell love, T.I.M.E.” The pair sound very good together on an enjoyable song, and this would be good to see recreated live. John Anderson is also great as the guest on ‘Diggin’ Up Bones’, complete with a newish verse omitted from the original (songwriter Paul Overstreet has previously recorded this version).

Zac Brown is very warm and likeable on a breezy version of Randy’s monster hit ‘Forever And Ever Amen’, and the rest of the Zac Brown Band adds pleasant backing vocals. Randy has recorded with Kenny Chesney before (‘Baptism’, on Kenny’s Everywhere We Go); this time, they try out Randy’s hit ‘He Walked On Water’, which is quite nicely done.

Randy is reunited with old tour partner Alan Jackson on a medley of a brace of songs they wrote together in the early 90s: ‘Better Class Of Losers’ and ‘She’s Got The Rhythm (And I Got The Blues)’. Alan seems to be singing in an unaccustomedly low key, and is almost unrecognizable at the start of the first song, but the pair seems to be having fun in the studio.

Less successfully, Tim McGraw duets on ‘You Can’t Hurt A Man’, written by Lance Miller with Brad and Brett Warren. This is a good song about a man who has reached the point where no new hurt can take him any lower, but one of the poorer performances, with Tim sounding AutoTuned and both of them shouting. James Otto is even shoutier on the bluesy ‘Too Much’. ‘Is It Still Over?’ is lively and Randy sounds at his best, but Carrie Underwood oversings her part, and lacks the playful sense of irony essential on this particular song, taking it all at face value.

Of the more unexpected duet partners, Kristin Chenoweth isn’t bad (and Randy sounds great) on ‘Love Looks Good On You’ a well-written contemporary ballad (by Gordie Sampson and Hilary Lindsey) about meeting an ex and finding she (or he, depending on which of them is singing lead) has moved on. Admittedly the lyric is another which doesn’t quite make sense as a duet. Kristin is reportedly readying a country album of her own. Her first single for country radio is terrible, but this is much more listenable, although her voice is not nearly as impressive as I would have expected from a Broadway star. Randy’s vocals are at their current best on this track. Irish singer Eamonn McCrystal lends his pleasant tenor to ‘Someone You Never Knew’, a Kyle Jacobs/Fred Wilhem song given a light Celtic flavor.

The Eagles’ Don Henley sings harmony on the downbeat hospital-set ‘More Life’, which sounds very familiar. This reflection on the end of life and what comprises “true happiness” is very touching. Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson both duetted separately with Randy on Heroes & Friends. This time they share ‘Road To Surrender’. The three ageing but distinctive voices are individually very effective on this weary sinner’s defeated appeal to God, written by Gary Duffey, Buffy Lawson and Angela Russell, although they do not meld very well when singing together.

Finally a group of mainly older stars (Lorrie Morgan, George Jones, Ray Price, Connie Smith, Joe Stampley and Gene Watson) combine on ‘Didn’t We Shine’. Gene Watson, who is still sounding great, really deserved a full duet, although the others featured are showing signs of age.

While not his best work, this is a nice way of recognising Randy’s 25 year career, and there are some definite bright spots.

Grade: A-

The album is streaming at Randy’s website. Buy it at amazon.

Album Review: ‘Country Strong’ soundtrack

The newest country-themed film, Country Strong is due out next January, with an early release just before Christmas in Nashville and LA. The music is much more mainstream than it was in Crazy Heart, the last such movie, and indeed two singles are currently in the lower reaches of the country charts. The tracks are all new recordings, some from actors in the film, others from a selection of country artists. A variety of producers have been used, and the music ranges from traditional to pop country.

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays a successful country singer in the movie, sings four of the songs. Her singing is perfectly competent, if a little colorless; it’s hard to say without seeing the film whether this is in character with the part she’s playing. The theme tune is one of the two radio singles. It’s a pleasant enough generic contemporary song, produced by Byron Gallimore, which makes it perfectly convincing as a hit single. Vince Gill and Patty Loveless sing backing vocals but are too far back in the mix to be heard. ‘Coming Home’ is a rather boring and awkwardly phrased pop-country ballad written by Bob DiPiero, Tom Douglas, Hillary Lindsey and Troy Verges, and drowned in strings. Gwyneth rocks out Gretchen Wilson-style in ‘Shake That Thing’ (written by Mark Irwin, Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins), and while this is yelled and tuneless, it should be pretty convincing in the context of the movie. She duets with Tim McGraw (who also has a role in the film) on the breakup-themed rock ballad ‘Me And Tennessee’, written by Paltrow’s real-life rock star husband Chris Martin, who also plays acoustic guitar on the track.

Oddly, McGraw does not get any solo cuts here; maybe Curb wouldn’t allow it. Starlet Leighton Meester (best known for her TV role in Gossip Girl) covers a Rascal Flatts song, ‘Words I Couldn’t Say’, which is less histrionic than the original, but not particularly interesting, and Leighton’s vocals sound rather processed and like a slightly more tuneful Taylor Swift. The best of the actors’ songs is the gruff-voiced Garrett Hedlund who is very effective on ‘Chances Are’, a very good song written by Nathan Chapman, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose, and produced by Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten. I understand Hedlund’s role is as a singer-songwriter, and he certainly sounds the part here on this drawled, half-rueful confession of a man’s inadequacies:

I used to give a damn
I used to try real hard but I’ll give in tonight, chances are
One foot on the narrow way and one foot on the ledge
Sifting through the devil’s lies for what the Good Book says
If I’m going anywhere
I’ll probably go too far
Probably away from you, chances are

This track was the real surprise package on this record.

Country fans will be most interested in the new tracks from established artists. We’ve already heard Sara Evans’ latest single, ‘A Little Bit Stronger’, a pleasant but rather bland positive ballad about coping with adversity, which has grown on me since it was first released as the lead single for both this album and Sara’s long-awaited next solo album (said to be entitled Stronger and possibly now due early next year). Her voice at least sounds lovely on this Tony Brown-produced and Luke Laird/Hillary Lindsey/Hillary Scott-penned number. Like Sara, Faith Hill has been silent for some time, and returns here with a forgettable AC-leaning ballad, ‘Give In To Me’, produced by Jay Joyce, which is soothing and sounds as though it will be background music for a love scene, and goes on a bit too long.

Chris Young and Patty Loveless team up on a duet written by Marv Green and Troy Olsen, and was produced by James Stroud, which must have been the original theme song. ‘Love Don’t Let Me Down’ was the original title for the movie, and it is a decent song, but not a particularly memorable one. It feels like a waste of this pairing of two of the best voices in country music. Trace Adkins reminds us he really can sing well on the reflective Natalie Hemby/Troy Jones song ‘Timing Is Everything’. Nicely produced by Kenny Beard with some lovely fiddle from Larry Franklin, this fine song about the role of chance in our lives is sensitively interpreted by Trace, and rather better than most of the material on his current album.

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